Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Nov 21 2017

How Wikipedia Tackles Fringe Nonsense

Published by under Culture and Society

wikipedia2Wikipedia is an interesting experiment in amateur crowdsourcing of information. I think it is a massively successful experiment, but it faces specific challenges. This page on Wikipedia discusses their approach to what information they allow to remain in their pages. They have a number of policies and practices that are meant to act as a quality control filter.

In my opinion they have settled upon a reasonable approach that might even be used as a model in other contexts. They begin with a completely open model – anyone can become a contributor and add information to Wikipedia. This is the crowdsourcing angle – many hands make light work. There are currently approximately 5,505,947 articles on the English language version of wikipedia. Wikipedia was founded on January 15, 2001, so that is almost 17 years. It is hard to imaging creating a reference with that much information by any other method in that much time.

So the wiki model is ideal for quantity, but what about quality. From the beginning there were concerns about the quality of the information – if anyone can post information, how can we know how accurate it is? A 2008 study comparing Wikipedia to other references for historical articles found Wikipedia to have an 80% accuracy rating, compared to 95-96% for other references. However, a 2005 Nature study of science entries found that Wikipedia was almost as good as Brittanica online – with no differences in major errors, and with an average of 4 errors total per article for Wikipedia, and 3 per article for Brittanica.

There haven’t been many studies since then, but a 2012 small follow up study found no significant difference between Wikipedia and other sources. Wikipedia has tightened its editorial policies over that time, so the improvement makes sense.

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Nov 16 2017

John Oliver Nails Trump

Published by under Culture and Society

Oliver-Trump 2017In the season finale of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reviews Trump’s assault on truth and decency. If you haven’t been watching this show, you should give it a try. Not only is it funny and entertaining, but on each episode Oliver does a deep dive on something in our society that is not right and can be fixed. His researchers generally do a great job, and I also think Oliver does a good job of not being gratuitously partisan.

His season-long attacks on Trump may not make it seem that way, but I don’t think they are partisan. I also try to keep my personal politics out of my science advocacy, but I think the problems with Trump transcend politics, ideology, and party. In this last episode for the season, Oliver reviews why this is true.

The real problem with Trump is not that he is Republican or conservative – actually you could argue that he is barely either of those things. It’s not even necessarily that he is an anti-establishment populist who wants to shake things up. The real danger of Trump is that he is an anti-intellectual who has been waging war against journalism, expertise, decency, standards, and any notion of objectivity.

For Trump the only thing that appears to matter is the current struggle in which he is engaged – he needs to achieve what he perceives as victory over any adversary, at any cost. Being honest and respecting knowledge and accuracy doesn’t seem to factor in at all.

As a result Trump is willing to sacrifice the basic fabric that is necessary for a functional democracy. He seems to view democratic checks and balances as nothing but an annoyance and obstacle, so eroding that fabric is just another win for him.

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Nov 14 2017

Fact-checking on Facebook

Published by under Culture and Society

facebook-unlikeLast year Facebook announced that it was partnering with several outside news agencies, the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, to fact-check popular news articles and then provide a warning label for those articles on Facebook. How is that effort working out?

According to a recent survey, not so well. Yale researchers Rand and Pennycook found only tiny effects overall, and it’s possible there is a net negative effect from the warning labels. Some people just ignore the labels. Perhaps more significant, however, is the fact that fake news articles that were missed by the fact-checkers were more likely to be believed as real because they lacked the warning label. The fact-checkers could not possibly keep up with all the fake news, so they were overwhelmed and most of the dubious content not only made it through the filters, but benefited from a false implication of legitimacy.

Further, the Guardian reports that this arrangement between Facebook and these news outlets compromise the ability of those news outlets from being a proper watchdog on Facebook itself. If their journalists are being paid by Facebook to fact-check, then they have a conflict of interest when reporting on how Facebook is doing. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that news organizations are hard-up for income, and could really use the extra income from Facebook.

So it seems that the fact-checking efforts of Facebook were insufficient to have any really benefit, and may have even backfired. Warning labels on dubious news articles may be the wrong approach. It’s simply too easy to foil this protection by overwhelming the system. You could even deliberately flood Facebook with outrageously fake news stories to serve as flack and provide cover for the propaganda you really want to get through. In the end the propaganda will be even more effective.

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Oct 13 2017

A Poor Marker of Truth

Published by under Culture and Society

lunar animalsAs a recent Atlantic article recounts, in the early 1800s steamed powered printing presses were making the distribution of information cheaper and faster. It didn’t take long for someone to figure out that this was an opportunity. In 1833 Benjamin Day (who was just 23 – the Zuckerberg of his age) founded the New York Sun.

The paper was the first of the “penny press” – sold for just a penny to increase distribution, and then monetized through advertising. This was a new paradigm – Day was not really selling information to the masses, he was selling the attention of the masses to advertisers. This flipped the incentives. He no longer had an incentive to produce quality information (because information was not the product), but rather to print whatever information got the most attention (which was his product).

So, in 1835 Day printed a series of stories about how astronomers, using a new telescope, were seeing bat people on the moon. The story “went viral” and fooled most people. It took rival newspapers to debunk the stories until Day finally admitted the whole thing was a hoax. That hoax may have been over, but it spawned an age of tabloids that continues to this day.

The printing press of the 21st century, of course, is the internet, and attention is the coin of the realm. This creates an inherent dilemma for our society – because attention is a poor marker of truth.

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47 responses so far

Oct 05 2017

The Gun Debate Revisited

Published by under Culture and Society

Gun-deathsAfter every mass shooting there is a renewed debate and call for better gun control, and pushback from gun owners who say, “Now is not the time to get political,” and “There’s nothing we can do to stop gun violence, it’s the price of freedom.” Then precisely nothing happens until we get distracted by something else and forget about gun violence until the next headline-grabbing shooting.

Clearly whatever we are doing is not working, and it is the oft-cited definition of insanity to do the same thing and expect a different outcome. So what are we doing wrong?

First, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. There are about 33,000 gun deaths per year in the US. This is more than any other wealthy country – only war-torn banana republics have higher rates of gun deaths. There were 477 mass shootings in the US in 2016.

About two thirds of gun deaths are from suicides. That is a large portion, but that still leaves 11,000 non-suicide gun deaths each year in the US. Gun homicides are a huge problem, not diminished at all because gun suicides are an even bigger problem. About 20% of gun deaths are crime and gang-related homicides, mostly young men killing other young men. Also, about 1,700 women are killed each year from gun-related domestic violence.

I reject the notion that this is the best we can do, that this is the price of freedom. Other Western democracies seem to enjoy freedom without anything close to the same rate of gun violence. So why has this been such a hard problem to solve?

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112 responses so far

Sep 22 2017

In Defense of Elitism

Published by under Culture and Society

ID-OnlyBiologyClassOne thing I really like about sports is that it is the ultimate meritocracy. You are judged on your skills, talents, and ultimately your performance. Professional players are evaluated by the numbers, and traded accordingly. Their salaries are a direct reflection of their value to their team.

All this has even been reduced to a science, sabermetrics, which is praised for its cold calculating approach to exactly how much each player is worth to their team. I never hear complaints about this in professional sports. I only hear comments about how one’s favorite team is doing, and the performance of various players. You can even play “fantasy football” or other sports where you get to pick your own players based on their statistics.

This approach to professional sports is the ultimate in elitism. They even refer shamelessly to “elite players” without anyone batting an eye. There is no serious criticism of the NFL for unfairly discriminating against smaller players, or for the undemocratic way in which players are recruited. The hard work that leads to elite performance is also recognized and praised.

The same is true in other spheres of life as well, such as celebrity. I will not praise celebrity culture, but it is a simple fact that celebrities are generally judged on talent, skills, performance, and persona. Critics and fans are ruthless. This is true of actors, artists, and musicians. In Hollywood, elitism is institutionalized. There are arcane rules and negotiations about the order in which credits appear on the screen, based on the perceived elite status of the actor.

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127 responses so far

Jun 15 2017

What Speech is Legally Protected?

Published by under Culture and Society

free-speech2Ken White, a first amendment attorney and proponent, has an excellent op-ed in the LA-Times about the law and free speech. It’s a necessary read for anyone interested in the ongoing debate about the role and limits of free speech in America.

The article is framed around pointing out common free-speech tropes, which is a good way to communicate about such topics. However, the scope of the article doesn’t really address the debate itself, it only provides a solid logical and legal framework for the debate. This is necessary to get the discussion to the point where it needs to be in order to address the actual issues, without getting distracted by legal myths.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment protection of free speech is based on the principle that a free and open society requires individual citizens to have the space and comfort to express their opinions without fear of oppression. White points out that the courts have generously interpreted this right over the years. Essentially all speech is protected except for very specific exceptions, which he lists as: “obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, true threats and speech integral to already criminal conduct. ”

You will notice that “hate speech” is not on the list. The courts have recognized that any speech which might be part of political expression must be protected, and that the speech which most needs protection is that which some or even most people will find objectionable.

Interestingly, the go-to example of not-protected speech that most often comes up, crying “fire” is a crowded theater, is actually protected. The current precedent is that the “incitement” criterion must be direct and immediate – “You, go kill that guy right there,” Indirect or vague incitements, or speech that might inspire someone to do something illegal or harmful, are still protected.

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May 15 2017

MMA vs Wushu – A Fight Between Reality and Fantasy

MMAvsWushuWhen magic and fantasy come up against hard reality, reality wins. One clear demonstration of this are literal fights between fantasy and reality.

There are now multiple videos online of fights between mixed martial arts fighters (MMA) and various forms of traditional Chinese martial arts. They all go the same way – the MMA fighters demolish the traditional fighters in seconds.

At the extreme end of the traditional fighters are the chi masters. They claim that they can channel their magical life force, chi, to weaken, block, and even incapacitate their foes. The first part of this video shows a chi master in action. You can see how apparently effective chi is against indoctrinated students (who have “drunk the dojo koolaid”). In the second half of the video you can see how spectacularly ineffective chi is against an MMA fighter.

In a similar recent competition, MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong had an open challenge to any traditional fighter, and Wei Lei, a practitioner of the “thunder style” of tai chi, accepted his challenge. The fight went like all the others- Wei Lei was crushed in 10 seconds.

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May 12 2017

Rational Arguments for God?

BuddhismI honestly don’t care what people choose to believe about unknowable speculations outside the realm of science and human knowledge. As long as they don’t use such belief as justification for public policy or to infringe on the rights of others, believe whatever you want.

However, once someone claims that they have scientific evidence for a supernatural belief, or can prove such a belief logically, then they have stepped into the arena of logic and science and their claims can be examined.

One such claim is that the existence of God can be proven through various logical arguments. I have never seen such an argument that I found even slightly compelling. They all have gaping holes in their logic. The latest incarnation comes from Robert Nelson, who appears to be promoting his 2015 book, “God? Very Probably.”  He claims to have five rational arguments that lead to the conclusion that God very probably exists. Let’s take a look. Continue Reading »

281 responses so far

Apr 18 2017

Is Alex Jones Faking?

alex-jonesAlex Jones is famous for his Infowars program in which he, often red-faced and ranting, promotes all kinds of absurd conspiracy theories. He claims the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false flag” operation (and pretty much every similar event – all staged by the government. He claimed that Obama and Hillary Clinton were literally demons.

The enduring question (at least for me) has been – to what extent does Jones actually believe the stuff that he says? I phrase it that way because belief is not necessarily binary (I don’t want to commit a false dichotomy logical fallacy). He may believe some of the stuff he says to some extent, but then exaggerates and gets into speculation, or simply not care about the veracity of his claims.

Clearly he has a shtick and it’s paying off well for him.

I have not taken on Jones directly (I have addressed many of the claims he supports) because I haven’t found it to be worthwhile so far. His character is clearly a nutjob, to put it bluntly, and I suspected not entirely sincere, and overall I thought it best to ignore him.

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132 responses so far

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